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Students take a modern look at 'West Side Story'

April 20, 2016

Melodramatics Theatre Company and Teatrotaller, Cornell’s Hispanic and Latinx Theatre Troupe, have collaborated on an innovative take on the classic musical “West Side Story,” being staged April 22-24 at the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. 

Featuring costumes and a set combining 1950s sensibilities with modern graffiti and grunge, the production explores the racial dynamics and tensions inherent in the script and connects them to the modern sociopolitical context of a country divided by political candidates and deep-seated stereotypes.

 “This production is as much for people who like ‘West Side Story’ as for those who dislike it,” said director Andrea Fiorentini ‘16. “We’ve actively challenged the show’s representation of race, gender and sexuality, and we hope to bring out the best parts of the original production while confronting aspects that seem faulty or inaccurate to a modern audience.”

One change, says Fiorentini, is that all the actors playing the “Sharks” are from South and Central America. The cast and crew are drawn from Cornell, Ithaca College and Tompkins County.

“This production of ‘West Side Story’ is special because it is working to unite divided communities and strengthen our understanding of differences, using theater. Its purpose is more significant than a few hours’ entertainment or a showcase of aesthetic innovation invested in its own impact,” said Jazlin Gomez ‘16, a choreographer and cast member.

Said dramaturg and cast member Anna Alison Brenner ’16: “No longer can audience members come see the show and choose to focus only on the Tony-Maria love story, or fail to notice that racism is integral to the script.”

The production uses choreography and staging to tackle modern political issues through its songs – “Gee, Officer Krupke” has been elevated beyond a song about ‘problem’ kids to one that “comments on police brutality,” and “America” comments on “the current U.S. political climate and its inhospitality to (and discrimination against) people of color,” Brenner said.

She continued, “We hope that by taking one of Broadway's best-loved classic musicals and staging it with a modern, racially conscious twist, we will be able to not only increase the representation of people of color in theater, but also make a difference in how people in Ithaca (and hopefully beyond) see not onlyWest Side Story,’ but also racism and discrimination in the U.S. today.”

Fiortenini has set aside time for cast and crew to discuss racial topics this production addresses. Having a facilitated conversation about race proved a powerful moment for Garrett Heller ‘17, a cast member: “This was such a critical turning point in our process because the concept of race became salient to everyone, whether they auditioned because they were drawn to these themes or whether they auditioned simply because they like to sing and dance.”

Brian Murphy ‘16, president of Melodramatics and the show’s producer, said “the collaboration with Teatrotaller, which reaches deep into so many different artistic and cultural communities on campus, is creating an amazing production that will not be forgotten anytime soon.”

Cornell students involved in the production have the opportunity to earn credit for the LASP 3010, LSP 3010 and COML 3010, Hispanic Theatre Production course, taught by Debra Castillo, professor of comparative literature.

“West Side Storywill be performed April 22 at 8 p.m., April 23 at 2 and 8 p.m.,  and April 24 at 2 p.m. in the Schwartz Center’s Class of ’56 Flexible Theatre. Tickets, on sale at the Melodratics web site, are $10 for Cornell and Ithaca College students, $15 for everyone else. A discounted rate is available for groups of eight or more individuals.

This article originally appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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